Jennifer Baichwal & Edward Burtynsky

WATERMARK directed by Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky. A Mongrel Media release. 90 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (September 27). For venues and times, see listings.


Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky would like you to really think about water.

Their new documentary Watermark (produced contemporaneously with Burtynsky’s book of stills, Water) explores humanity’s relationship to water around the world – how it’s used, abused, diverted and repurposed. And in a period of fast-paced, flashily edited films, it dares to take its time.

“Look, we know the capacity for reflection has diminished in contemporary society in general,” Baichwal says, doing a press day with Burtynsky just hours before their movie premieres at the Toronto Film Festival.

“Many documentaries can be reductive, because they’re advancing one point of view. There’s clarity there, but you gain clarity at the expense of complexity. This was a complex subject, and we wanted to let it be as complex and multifaceted as water is – you kind of flow along in that stream, and hopefully it allows you to think about it in a different way. It gives you a different understanding of this thing that most of us in the developed world take for granted.”

Burtynsky was an essential creative collaborator on Manufactured Landscapes, but for Watermark he shares directorial credit with Baichwal.

“We went to our strengths,” Baichwal says. “Ed and I would be up in a helicopter, or Nick [de Pencier, producer/cinematographer] and Ed would be up in a helicopter, and Ed would be taking stills and Nick or I would be directing the Cineflex operator, and Ed would look at the screen and we’d figure out in points and out points” for a given shot.

“But then we’d go down on the ground, and Ed would spend a lot of time trying to get one incredible shot at the dam, and Nick and I would be following the guys who were going for lunch. We needed to do that for the film to work. It needed to have the human, emotional element.”

The project took Baichwal, Burtynsky and de Pencier around the world, from China’s massive Xiluodu Dam to unspoiled watersheds in British Columbia. And then they spent 11 months in an editing suite, finding the movie’s structure. (The most intriguing revelation in Watermark’s end-credit roll is the notation that the production began without a script.)

“Our way of making films is probably a dying way, because it does take a lot of time, and they’re expensive,” Baichwal says. “But it is about being in a place in an authentic way, and then trying to convey that authenticity to the viewer in an experiential way. It’s not having something that you already want to say in advance, and going there to find that thing and to cover it and then leave, you know?”

Baichwal and Burtynsky talk about the film on Sunday (September 29), 3 pm, at Indigo Manulife Centre. See Books, page 68. And the film’s Xiluodu Dam section plays during Nuit Blanche, October 5, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Interview Clips

Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal on the evolution of the Water project and the importance of aerial shots:

Download associated audio clip.

Baichwal and Burtynsky on Watermark’s strangest location:

Download associated audio clip.

Baichwal and Burtynsky on the human inability to think globally:

Download associated audio clip.

normw@nowtoronto.com | @wilnervision

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